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NFL lockout forces a timeout on officials

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Scott Green’s office in Tysons Corner is filled with paperwork, planners and spreadsheets. His suit jacket hangs on the back of his chair and a letter from President Reagan hangs on the wall. Sitting on one corner of his desk, there’s an NFL rulebook. And in his leather bag, there’s another rulebook, an abridged version and an essential carry-on accessory for the veteran NFL referee.

“Kind of like a priest walking around with his Bible,” Green said.

Green is co-founder of the Lafayette Group, a 17-year-old firm that contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to connect local governments with experts and consultants who help prepare for emergency situations. It’s a uniquely Washington business with a seventh-floor office, a pleasant reception area and art featuring the company’s namesake, a Revolutionary War general.

“This is a job,” Green said. “It’s work. It can be fun, but it’s just totally different than football.”

Green, 60, has two jobs, in fact, and each seems to require more than 40 hours many weeks. He is one of 17 referees in the NFL. Before he was an official, he played youth, high school and college football. That means, Green has spent every fall for the past 50 years on a football field. He’s hopeful this fall will be no different.

Even as owners and players continue to negotiate a labor agreement that might end the NFL’s lockout, the league’s 119 officials are caught in the middle. If players don’t play, referees can’t ref. If games are missed, so are paychecks. Depending on seniority and responsibilities, a veteran official, technically a part-time, contracted position, can earn up to $130,000 annually.

Most years by this point, the officiating crews would know which training camps they’d attend and which preseason games they might work.

“We’ve been told we’re definitely meeting in July for our annual clinic,” Green said. “But that’s all that we know at this point.”

Green is a juggler, compartmentalizing his responsibilities and wearing two very different hats as he delicately balances two disparate worlds. Planning is essential, but with the start of the 2011 NFL season in jeopardy, for now, planning is also impossible.

An officer and an official

Even in the offseason, football demands a lot of Green’s time. E-mails, conference calls, film study.

“I’ll go in his office,” said Keil Green, his son and the company’s program manager, “and one minute we’re talking public safety communications and the next we’re talking about whether there’s enough separation to be offensive pass interference.”

On his desk are a pair of quizzes that he and his officials must complete before their annual clinic next month. The questions are highly specific and entail scenarios that might never arise in a game. One example:

“Third-and-Six on B42.  With 0:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, the score is tied 21-21.  QBA1 completes a pass to End A2 at the B22 and A2 runs to the B4, where he is tackled on the sideline (0:00).  After the play is over, B3 spears A2.  B3 is upset with the call, so he picks up the Field Judge’s flag and throws it into the stands.”

This is the slow time of year for Green, and he relishes it. For most of his life, once July winds down, his life speeds up.

Forty years ago, Green was a linebacker at the University of Delaware. As a sophomore, he tore his ACL, which ended his playing career but also pushed him down two parallel paths.

A mentor named Walt Smerconish had a teaching program at a local jail and invited Green to tag along. He also advised Green that he could stick around football by donning an official’s stripes.

After Green graduated, he’d spend his weekends officiating games and the rest of his time working as a probation officer. After two years of dealing with convicts and courts, he enrolled at Arizona State, where he earned a masters degree in criminal justice public administration.

All the while, Green remained on the football field. Football officiating is like climbing a tall ladder where you spend most of your life closer to the bottom rung than the top. In Arizona, Green earned $10 a game officiating Pop Warner football. He was still limited to working the chains at junior varsity games in Virginia after Joe Biden, two years into his second term in the U.S. Senate, lured him to Washington 30 years ago.

Government or football?

In the 1980s, Biden headed the Senate Judiciary Committee and Green, as a senior adviser to the panel, helped research and craft important legislation.

“He understands the intersection between public policy and politics,” said Alan Hoffman, the vice president’s deputy chief of staff and a longtime Biden aide. “He knows how to get things done.”

The same qualities that make Green a good football official, Hoffman said, helped him navigate congressional channels.

“With certain people, it’s part of their DNA,” Hoffman said. “Law enforcement officials relate to him because he’s a real guy. He’s a very unassuming person, just really grounded.”

On the football field, it was hard to miss. Green went from working high school games to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference before the NFL offered him a job in 1990. He’d reached a point where he had to choose between his government work and the NFL.

“Football is really his passion,” Keil Green said. “It always has been.”

Green co-founded his own firm, hoping to focus on law enforcement issues, which gave him the flexibility to manage his schedule and work football games in the fall.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Green and his business partner, Charles DeWitt, spotted a major need. Local governments and law enforcement agencies were eager to bulk up their emergency response systems. The federal government provided the money, and the Lafayette Group, which has more than 25 employees in Tysons Corner and 50 more spread across the country, provides the experts. They have consultants stationed in two dozen cities at once, helping local officials prepare for emergency and crisis situations.

“Whenever he’s in town and we’ll have meetings, I’ll joke, ‘Well, because you’ll be at this meeting, I guess we’ll spend the first 15 minutes talking about football,’ ” DeWitt said. “If I show up alone, we just skip the football talk.”

Money concerns of their own

The NFL Referees Association has no ties to the NFL Players Association, but the message it’s sent to its members the past 18 months has been similar: We don’t know what’s going to happen, so start putting some money away.

“Right now, the players’ situation has a big impact on us,” said Tim Millis, the executive director of the NFL Referees Association.

Football officials have their own collective bargaining agreement with the NFL, and they’ve had their share of labor battles as well. In 2001, owners locked out the officials and used replacements throughout the preseason and for the first regular season games before the two sides struck an agreement.

The referees’ current deal is set to expire at the end of the 2011 season. In a normal year, the two sides would be negotiating a new agreement this offseason, but with the owners and players still deadlocked over details of their own deal, the officials have to wait.

“We don’t expect management to talk to us while they’re still dealing with the players,” Millis said.

There are 119 officials spread over 17 crews. As referee, Green is in charge of his own crew of seven. It’s among the most difficult jobs to land in the NFL. There are more than 50,000 football officials in the United States who work high school games and thousands more who do college contests. Only one or two spots open up in any given year on an NFL crew.

Millis says a referee could work up to 50 hours a week and is on the road as many as 27 weekends out of the year. For this, a ref is typically on the high end of the payscale. A rookie line judge will still earn at least $44,000 over the course of a season.

There’s a provision in the current agreement between the officials and the NFL that ensures each will earn at least $15,000 this year, even if no games are played. Still, many stand to lose a lot of money. For most officials, the NFL is a second job and a secondary source of income. They work as lawyers, run small businesses or have other occupations that allow them a flexible schedule for half the year.

“You’ve got to love it to ever make it to the point where the money would matter,” Millis said.

The Big Game

The NFL grades its officials from week to week. Those with the top grades are awarded playoff games and championships. Green has worked three Super Bowls.

“I think Scott’s personality is reflected on the football field,” said Carl Johnson, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “Scott is a calm person. He doesn’t get nervous no matter what’s going on. When bombs are going off all around, he doesn’t worry.”

Green was the referee at Super Bowl XLIV in February 2010, in which the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts. There were only eight penalties in the game and each time a yellow flag was thrown, more than 106 million viewers saw Green on their television screens — and then quickly forgot him.

“I remember coming off the field and saying, ‘Guys that was a great game, and no one will ever remember that we officiated it,’ ’’ Green said. “That’s the goal. Players are the ones who people are there to watch.”

The official’s job is a tricky one. On Sundays, fans line up behind one team or the other — but they’re often unified when it comes to the officiating. The good calls are expected and the bad ones are not easily forgiven.

Green’s had his share of both, as any official who’s worked more than 300 NFL games might. He was the back judge in a 2003 playoff game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. In the closing moments of the game, he was in the best position to throw a pass interference flag, which would have set up a game-winning field goal attempt for the Giants. But the crew didn’t make the call, and San Francisco won, 39-38. Days later, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told ESPN it was the most “disappointing” officiating failure he’d seen.

Green’s office is decorated with memorabilia from his Super Bowl visits and his NFL rulebook is rarely out of arm’s reach. At his Northern Virginia home, his NFL uniforms hang in his closet, opposite his business suits, and ready for use — as soon as the lockout ends and refs are called to visit camps.

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